Not Credible: SQA, Class and Education

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The SQA has released its decisions on pupils grades across the country, aggressively undercutting teacher estimates for poorer students. An anonymous Scottish teacher says that the decision underlines the unjust nature of the Scottish education system.

Scottish Qualifications Assessment (SQA) results day is always nerve-wracking for pupils, parents and teachers. So much standing is placed on the information contained within that envelope (or, more commonly in our ever-practical but less romantic times, the message that arrives with ping of your phone), bringing with it the promise of college, university, apprenticeships, or for some, a sobering rethink of what your future might look like.

However, this year’s – like so much else affected by the Coronavirus pandemic – brought with it the unprecedented cancelling of exams, and a new approach to the assigning of final grades. The results that arrived were not those that had been anticipated, even suspected, since pupils closed an exam answer booklet in May, confident in the knowledge that the expected questions had come, or being faced with a three month desperate wait, hoping against hope that they’d been too hard on themselves and perhaps had done better than they thought when they put down their pen and left the exam hall a little deflated.

Instead, this year’s results were, according to the SQA, to be decided primarily by teacher estimate. Those of us with previous experience of the SQA and its often dismissive attitude towards teachers were sceptical, and today as we turned on the news, looked at Twitter and went to work to discover the fates of our own pupils, we found out our scepticism had not been misplaced. Thousands of pupils took to social media, decrying the stark contrast in performance across the year and in prelims with what was printed on the paper in front of them. Teachers too – anonymised in the main, because there is no profession that so loves to punish its hard working and dedicated members for speaking out for the welfare of their pupils as the teaching profession – spoke of pupils predicted As and Bs on the basis of robust evidence, who had been awarded Ds or even fails. Stories of university places lost, pupils who had worked tirelessly for months and teachers utterly incensed at how this was allowed to happen filled social media timelines across the country.

Incensed, yes, but not surprised. I have not spoken to one colleague today who is surprised at this, because at its heart, the Scottish education system is fundamentally unfair. It is an education system which still favours the affluent; an education system in which young people who grow up in poverty are still disproportionately more likely to leave school with no qualifications, and with lower attainment in the qualifications they do get. It is an education system which is desperately out of touch with what it claims to want to be. You can instigate all the attainment challenges and implement all the Pupil Equity Funds you want, but when a pupil in the east end of Glasgow is going home to a household where the internet is unaffordable and essays and assignments have to be written on phones, researched using mobile data which could run out at any point, while their counterpart in East Renfrewshire goes home to a house with two university-educated parents and all the educational resources they could need at their fingertips, then PEF (Pupil Equity Fund) money becomes as useful as a plaster on a gaping wound. This is the system we work within in Scotland. It is the system our young people learn in. And it is a system that has, today, let them down worse than ever before.

The statistics are laid bare for all to see: in the most deprived areas, teachers predicted that 85.1% of pupils would attain A-C grades at Higher. The SQA lowered this to 69.9%, a discrepancy of 15.2% between those who provided evidence-based estimates, and those who decided to change them at the SQA. Conversely, in the most affluent areas, Higher pupils were predicted 91.5% A-C grades at Higher, and this was lowered to 84.6%, a difference of only 6.9%. When questioned on this, the First Minister and Depute First Minister suggested that keeping the grades at the suggested levels would have made Higher passes in deprived areas historically high and therefore not “credible”.

Not credible. It is, according to our First Minister, not credible to think that our most deprived pupils can attain as highly as their teachers think they can. It is not credible that those pupils can meet such high standards. It is not credible that maybe, just maybe, teachers know their pupils and what they are genuinely capable of, and what really needs to be reconsidered here is the draconian and unfair approach to assigning grades to pupils who work hard for nine months only to have their futures decided on one day, in an exam hall, under extreme stress. Extreme stress that affluent pupils are, by the very nature of their upbringing and their privilege, more adept to cope with.

Across the country tonight, thousands of pupils from deprived areas sit, devastated, thinking about results which – so they have long had drummed into them – tell them their worth. They face an uncertain few weeks, hoping that a successful appeal can be lodged in time for them to still get into a college or university of their choice, and knowing that only a few miles away, a more affluent pupil already knows their future; is already certain of their path. And fundamentally, that is what our education system does: it entrenches inequality and uncertainty, and it teaches people from deprived backgrounds to know their place. This year, it has ingrained unfairness and uncertainty in the lives of those whose entire existence is already marked by unfairness and uncertainty, while reinforcing certainty and privilege for those who already had it in the first place. It has shown starkly the further inequality that this pandemic has brought about.

We had a chance this year to do it differently. The SQA could have allowed teacher estimates to genuinely be the yardstick by which young people were measured. Teachers know their pupils. We know who has worked hard. We know who pulled it out of the bag for the prelim, and would again in an exam. We know the slow starters, those who manage to cram their way to a pass in those last few weeks of April. We predicted grades in good faith that they would be respected – that we would be respected, as the professionals we know we are. We, and more importantly our pupils, have been utterly let down. Nicola Sturgeon asked a few years ago that we judge her on her record in education. Unfortunately for her, this year may well be the one for which she is remembered.

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